Many people think that unique musical voices are born with their individual visions in tact; in reality, these approaches evolve over the course of years, resulting from diverse experiences and artistic associations. These individuals most likely show some sort of interest in music or an aptitude for the art form at a young age, and hopefully they have an easily accessible path to indulge their curiosity. Family or community members can be important parts of this stage, helping supply instruments or performance opportunities. Once they develop some performance skills though, the individual needs to find their own path; some find it quickly while others take their time, but eventually they connect with different musicians. The shared experiences with their peers will define their identity and shape their musical concepts. The direction of these experiences will vary but their impact will always weigh heavily upon the artist. Performances obviously exert the strongest influence upon the development of a musical identity; each setting provides examples of different methods and the application of new ideas. Exposure to a wide variety of listening experiences also help expand an artist’s horizon as friends share recordings and take them to concerts, opening new perspectives onto the musical world. There’s a wealth of possibilities for musical development, and as long as a musician takes the opportunity to process them through their own lenses, they’ll create a unique direction. With each passing experience, the musician grows into a stronger artist with a more defined identity – this consistently pushes them towards leadership roles.
Pianist Oscar Hernandez started the road towards becoming one of the most distinctive voices in Latin dance music and jazz early in the his life and kept evolving through many different experiences. As a child in the Bronx, he showed an early aptitude for musical performance, and moved through a variety of different instruments. Access to a family piano eventually steered him towards a focus, and the existence of an active set of musical peers helped instigate his development. Hernandez jumped into professional performance while still a teen and found himself in the midst of the booming Fania era of Latin dance music. His piano skills served him well, and before he hit twenty years old, Hernandez became a busy professional on the New York scene. He always maintained an open mind for new experiences though, and soon found like-minded musicians in Andy and Jerry Gonzalez. The brothers introduced Hernandez to a world of important music, ranging from early Cuban recordings to the whole spectrum of jazz approaches. Their shared appreciation of these different genres led to Hernandez’s involvement in two important Gonzalez anchored groups: Grupo Folklorico Y Experimental Nuevayorquiño and Libre. Still at a young age, Hernandez left an unforgettable impact upon the Latin music world through recordings with these groups. His strong skills grabbed the attention of one of the salsa world’s biggest stars, conguero Ray Barretto, who recruited Hernandez for his band. The pianist proved to be an important piece of Barretto’s group, helping in the recording of some classic albums, including Rican/Struction. All these experiences served as the building blocks for an important career that had only just begun.
As Hernandez developed into an influential musical figure and an insightful bandleader, he made major contributions to the world of Latin dance music and jazz. These early experiences not only helped shaped Hernandez, but they influenced the continual evolution of Latin music. In the first piece of our two-part interview with pianist Oscar Hernandez, we discuss his early musical development, his involvement with the Gonzalez brothers, and his time in Ray Barretto’s band.
LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You grew up in the Bronx – how did you get into music as a young person?
OSCAR HERNANDEZ: When I was 12, I joined the local Boy’s Club. It was about five or six blocks from where I lived. They had a music program set up, and I started playing. They had a drum and bugle core, so I started playing bugle. From there, if you did O.K., they would switch you to trumpet. That’s what I did, I started taking trumpet lessons. I had a trumpet teacher, and I remember him saying, “Oh man, this kid’s going to be really good!” I was picking up pretty quick on what he was teaching. After about a year or so, I was having a tough time with the trumpet in terms of embouchure and having a tough time with the upper register. So he said, “Maybe you should think about switching to sax or the piano.” Lo and behold, I think it was divine intervention. Where I lived in the Bronx – I come from a family of 11; I’m number 10. My oldest brother became the superintendent of the building that we lived in. It was kind of a big building. We had these rooms down stairs – some of them were full of junk. So he emptied them out, cleaned them, and painted it to make it beautiful. He made it like our little clubhouse. Somebody gave him a piano and that’s how it all started for me. They gave him a piano and it was pretty good. He moved it in there and I just started on my own, messing around with it. Before I knew it, I was into it and I would meet people that knew a little bit. I just started taking off little by little. I started playing with local neighborhood bands at the age of 14 or 15. I started really playing professionally about 17.
LJC: Was that when you started with Ismael Miranda?
OH: I was about 18 years old. I was playing already with a neighborhood band that actually recorded back in the day with Fania – a group called La Conquistadora. We did a record. From there, the trombone player was playing with a band that was kind of playing more on a professional level – this guy named Joey Pastrana. He led a band and he had a couple of recordings out. He was on a more professional, serious level. I remember he said, “Hey, we need a piano player.” So I went in and struggled my first time. He gave me the music, I took it home and learned it, and I played with him for about a year. He was working enough back in those days. Then another friend of mine was working with Ismael Miranda, who had just started his band. They were having problems with the piano player and he recommended me. I came in and it couldn’t have been set up better for me. Ismael at that time was one of the most popular singers and the band was working five, six, seven days a week. It really gave me my independence. I was able to start making a living, I moved out on my own. It was a great situation – that was my training ground, so to speak. I was really working professionally and getting to play a lot.
He had just left Larry Harlow’s band. They had some big successes – he was successful with Larry Harlow and they a bunch of hits. So he was already well known by then. He went on his own and formed his own band, and that was that. We recorded a record called Asi Se Compone un Son and he even had a name for the band. The band was called La Revelación. So . We had a great following and the band was working a lot. I was on my way.
LJC: How long did you play with that group?
OH: That only lasted a little over a year. A couple of us left and he decided to break up the band. He decided to move to Puerto Rico soon after.
LJC: Early on, you were involved in the circle around Andy and Jerry Gonzalez, checking out older Cuban music – you played on the Grupo Folklorico albums – what did you get from that scene?
OH: That’s exactly right. I was playing with Ismael when Andy came up to me at a gig and introduced himself. He said, “Hey man, you should come to the house one day.” Andy and Jerry lived in a private house – their parents lived upstairs and they had the apartment downstairs. So it was like their little haven. We went there and it was a very important time for us. We were really learning. Fortunately for me, they exposed us to a lot of music – they had a huge record collection. Andy and Jerry were very much into listening to all kinds of music, so I had that association. It was a place where musicians would just go hang out and stay there until three, four, five, six in the morning just listening to music. Sometimes jamming – Andy had a piano there. It became a place where we would be young, develop, and experiment. Soon there after, we met Rene (Lopez), which was amazing. He was an amazing source for us. We would go to his house and he would expose us to so much music – Cuban music really. I would say that he is the foremost authority on Cuban music in the world; he’s amazing. He would start playing all the stuff and telling us the history. It was a huge awakening in terms of the evolution of the music and learning about the history of the music and how it developed up to the time that we were at. It was great.
LJC: Then that transitioned into the two Grupo Folklorico albums – Concepts in Unity and Lo Dice Todo – how was that experience of taking all that you’d been learning and doing something creative with it?
OH: It was just awesome. It was certainly something different. He assembled this group of different individuals with a similar concept and started trying different things out. It was an amazing sound. I remember going into the studio for the first recording that we recorded – the first song that we recorded was “Iya Modupue” and I’ll never forget the experience. It’s like an indelible memory in my mind. The sound of it listening through the headphones, it was like, “Wow, this is pretty cool.” With Virgilio and all the drums and everything, it was like, “Wow, this is amazing.” So we did those two records – the concepts was for us to just create. There were no charts at the time; we weren’t writing this music down. We were just formulating what we wanted to do with it, making a groove – this will go here, this will go here, let’s do this – and boom, what came out was really special. It was a great time.
LJC: Those albums still sound so vital today – why do you think those albums still so exciting, what was their impact?
OH: Well, good music is timeless; that’s just how I feel about it. You could say the same thing about any music in any other genre if it’s really done well. That was really special because there was a certain raw energy that existed. Apart from the fact that we were all young and we were all really excited to be doing what we were doing, we loved what we were doing. The concept was really special, because it wasn’t like a salsa album. That’s what kind of made it special too. Sometimes things happen like that. I’m sure that some of the stuff wasn’t intentional per say, as opposed to “let’s try something” and then magic is created. I’ve been in other situations like that as well, and it’s great when that happens, because that’s kind of what music is about. When that creative element is at its highest, it’s pretty cool and it works.
LJC: Around that time, you were in on the beginning of Libre as well too . . .
OH: Yea, I forget about the chronology of it, but it was about the same time that Libre got formed and I recorded their first three albums. That was also part of the time that there was a place called the NuRican Village in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It became kind of a cultural place where we would perform and Libre got started that way. It started becoming popular and we were working quite a bit. It was a great experience for me; all of that was part of my training ground in terms of me developing as a musician. I was still fairly young; I must have been about 20 or 21. Working with Manny Oquendo, obviously, was huge, because he was a person that encompassed the whole spectrum of what the music was about and lived it. He had a track record to prove it – he had recorded all those great records with Tito Rodriguez, Puente, and mainly at that time, with Eddie Palmieri – on top of all the other things he had done. Another great experience for me.
LJC: Who was on the scene that you were listening to at that time that was giving you concepts that you wanted to take on?
OH: Well the thing about hanging out at Jerry and Andy’s house is that not only were they big into listening to the history of Latin music and listening to old Cuban stuff, but they were jazz heads too. I started getting the whole historical aspect of jazz and being turned onto Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Bill Evans. Then there were the piano players who were in the forefront of the jazz scene in those days, who were people like McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock. All of a sudden I’m listening to that too – it was like wowww. On certain nights we’d be into a jazz head and on certain nights we’d be into a whole Latin head, other nights we’d be into a whole Brazilian trip. So I was just absorbing all this music and I was really becoming enlightened about the whole world of music in that house. I guess that I’m indebted to them in a sense, because, they had this whole spectrum of musical tastes that were pretty amazing.
As far as pianists live in those days – the guy who was in the forefront for me was definitely Eddie Palmieri. He had Azucar and that was burning through every other window that you would pass by. Then you became familiar with the Latin guys, such as Charlie Palmieri, Ricardo Rey, Sonny Bravo was on the scene – I would also get together with him and he was a great player. People like Papo Lucca was already out there, and playing, and recording a lot. Those were the contemporary cats. Maybe Edy Martinez. Then, you know, listening to all the Cuban piano players like Peruchin. Then listening to all the jazz cats. So I was like stuck in the middle, saying, “How do I play? I want to play the Latin stuff, but I want to try and incorporate some of the jazz stuff.” It’s not an easy thing. If you’re playing jazz, it’s not really the medium of Latin music – unless you’re playing Latin Jazz. So I was kind of discovering how to find my identity and all that.
LJC: Sometime in the mid-seventies, you got the gig with Ray Barretto – how did you get that gig?
OH: Well, with Ray Barretto, I kind of got thrown into the fire. I think Edy Martinez was the piano player and he couldn’t make something at the last minute. I remember the first album that I ever did with Ray Barretto was the live album at The Beacon Theater. So I got thrown into the fire really quick. It was another incredible experience for me, because Ray depended very much upon the piano player from the band to do a lot of things. He afforded me the ability to spread my wings even more. He would really be into me expanding as a soloist, and later on, as an arranger. He really gave me my first opportunity as an arranger. He would come over to the house – we developed that type of a relationship. He would say, no, I want this, try to do this. And also, Ray was an incredible source – he was one of the most knowledgeable cats about music in general. He also was a big jazz expert – he had played with a lot of the jazz cats. He loved jazz; he was just a fountain of knowledge. He was a great guy to be around and also he was a great bandleader – he produced a lot of great music. I feel to this day that the bands that I played in with Ray were some of the best bands that he had, although they weren’t the most popular bands. Maybe people would think different, but the recordings that we had with the band were just so ass kicking at the time. It was all part of my development as a musician and looking back, how blessed I’ve been to play with people such as him. I think part of it was that I always was playing with musicians who were better than me, so I had to try to come up to snuff and get my stuff together little by little. Playing with Ray gave me the stamp of credibility, like I’d arrived, playing with a band that was at the top level.
LJC: I love those Barretto albums from that era and the album that you’re on that is so major is Rican/Struction – that’s a classic . . .
OH: Yea, that’s kind of a landmark album to a lot of people. That was Ray with his innovative head wanting to do stuff that’s kind of ahead of the pace and him wanting to be progressive. He was stuck the same way that I was, come to think about it. He wanted to be funky and Latin, but at the same time, he was listening to all the jazz stuff, so he wanted that element too. That’s not easy, but he was able to achieve it on that album I think – and on other subsequent albums. The Rhythm of Life album was killin’. I listen to that now . . . well, I don’t really listen to it, because I don’t go back that much. But every now and then some people play for me, and I think, “Wow, that’s pretty awesome – that’s great music.” That era was a pre-cursor for me, for what I’m doing with my own band. No doubt about it, with Spanish Harlem Orchestra – it’s basically taking that and doing it today. People have forgotten what that was – after fifteen years of the music that we’ve had.
LJC: What sort of response did Rican/Struction get at the time – did it turn heads or were people thinking, “What is going on here?!?” How did people take that?
OH: Well, one of the problems of that is that it wasn’t commercially successful. It wasn’t like his albums of earlier or the bands of earlier. So he was kind of disappointed. We were proud of the music and musicians would go like, “Wow, this is kickin’!” – everybody had that reaction. I don’t think that it was really accepted by the mainstream public in terms of being commercial though. It wasn’t like when he had a hit with “Guarare” and all those albums – that was different. They were great bands too, but my era with Ray wasn’t really the same. I mean, he was Ray Barretto, and we worked a lot. He was well respected, and we were considered one of the better bands. But he wasn’t really reaping the benefits of success like people like Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe or even Eddie Palmieri – and he was always kind of disappointed. I think when I left the band, he went even further to try and be even more commercial. I think that he said enough with this, let’s try and go and be funky. Even towards the end, he was telling me, “We got to do stuff to sound like El Gran Combo or something like that . . .” I didn’t realize it much at the time, but it was very heavy to be going through all that stuff.
Make sure that you check out the second part of our discussion with Oscar Hernandez. We spend some time looking at Hernandez’s involvement in Latin Jazz, the formation of Seis Del Solar and his association with Ruben Blades, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, and more. Check it out HERE.
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